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Reflections Up in the Air: Our Connected World

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I watched Up in the Air few weeks ago. I loved the movie. Ruminating about it, I felt I wasn’t going beneath the surface of this tragicomical film at the first glance. It took a few viewings to savor the whole movie in its totality and reflect on what it had to say about our connected lives. Up in the Air is an interesting commentary about our modern, networked lives and the role technology plays in relating to others.

Up in the Air begins with a montage of beautiful aerial shots, with the opening credits floating over the clouds. If you think about it, the artificial environment of the airport with its “recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers etc.” resembles the digital landscape around which companies and individuals carefully craft their identities.

Up in this digital space, everybody hovering around seems warm, friendly, and social. Companies are humane, social entities which care deeply about their environment. Relationships in this space are all about having the highest number of friends/followers. Customer loyalty is all about collecting the maximum number of loyalty points/frequent flyer miles. But as much as we would like to use surrogates or approximations to delude ourselves about reality, we are simply beguiling ourselves to believe that we have naively found simple solutions for our complex problems.

Technology with its ubiquity often brings about a delusion in which we think we are surrounded by people. Not everyone gets a chance to realize, as Vera Farmiga’s character points out to George Clooney’s, how isolated our lives are in reality. As I am typing this, I am reminded of a billboard advertisement I noticed for a mobile service service in Pune, which points out in big, bold letters, “Alone but not lonely,” with a picture of a man happily engrossed in a phone call. I often wonder if it could be the other way around in reality: “Lonely, but not alone.” Of course, marketers wouldn’t like us to realize this.

The movie also beautifully depicts the location paradox inherent in this Connectivity Age. As Emily Nagle Green explains in her book Anywhere, location is both significant and insignificant in this networked age. Isn’t it insignificant when we can communicate with a person anywhere through one common network?  But if you think again, location becomes very significant, as we have the choice to be where it matters most, as is done in the firing scenes in the movie.

Technology is beginning to play a crucial role in the way we relate to people. Old-timers talk about the superficiality of online relationships, and how when it is so easy to reach out to people, it is so hard to maintain close, personal contact in our hurried, attention-deficit lives. While it would be foolish to go on a nostalgic trip to the good old days when technology wasn’t a part of our social lives, or remain ignorant of its immense benefits in our daily lives, we have to rethink the way we relate to people when we use technology as a tool.

Often we tend to forget that technology is just a tool, and it is up to the invidividual to bring about the human element vital for communication. No sophisticated technology whatsoever can humanize communication for us. The onus lies entirely upon us.

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